This is another of those times when a movie has so much potential that I have to see how and why it all went wrong. Nicole Kidman, Mark Strong, and Colin Firth in a movie with a novel psychological thriller premise. Sure, it was written and directed by Rowan Jaffe, previously responsible for the screenplay of an overrated snoozefest called The American, but even that movie had its strong points.
Yet Before I Go to Sleep only has a 37 percent Tomatometer as of this writing. Though I don’t personally believe the movie should be rated that low, I can certainly tell you why so many critics were turned away by it.
Christine Lucas (Kidman) was subjected to several brutal head injuries, either as the victim of an accident or an attack. The details are unclear. All we know is that Lucas is now an amnesiac whose brain effectively resets itself on a nightly basis, wiping away the last twenty years of memories while she sleeps. So every morning, she wakes up to a husband she doesn’t recognize (Ben Lucas, played by Firth), who has to explain this whole drill over and over. It seems that no progress has been made in figuring out her condition or what happened to her, until Christine’s psychiatrist (Dr. Nasch, played by Strong) suggests keeping a video journal of her new memories each day. And strangely enough, he suggests that Christine keep the journal a secret from her husband.
Let’s pause for a moment to acknowledge that yes, this premise is absolutely ridiculous. The very concept of short-term memory loss makes for a very implausible hook to hang a story on, and of course we’re going to find contrivances and contradictions along the way. Yet I’m okay with the concept because it serves a higher and far more interesting thematic purpose.
As Christine investigates her own past, she of course finds that things have been kept from her. I won’t go into details, but suffice to say that a whole ton of memories come to light that cause Christine immense pain. And while we have the luxury of getting used to our emotional baggage, Christine’s grief never gets any lighter. Every time she learns about her pain, it’s as bad as the first time. And she does this every single day.
But does she have to?
Christine is in the unique position of being able to live without her mistakes and losses. She never has to know grief or guilt or suffering. Every day is a blank slate, with a fresh opportunity to live a happy and carefree life in ignorant bliss. The drawback, of course, is that she may not necessarily be the one making that choice. She’s completely at the mercy of the other characters, dependent on their accounts of everything that happened. She has her own mnemonics, sure, but those can still be tampered with. So who does she trust?
It goes without saying that Kidman is fantastic as our protagonist. At this stage in her career, she could play the role in her sleep (no pun intended, I assure you). What’s even better is that she was cast opposite Mark Strong, who has of course built his career on playing villainous characters. Yet Strong is still charismatic in such a way that he’s still very likable and easy to trust, which potentially makes him even more dangerous. Colin Firth has a very different reputation (he won an Oscar playing a stuttering British king, for God’s sake), but that appears to be shifting a little bit. Between his performance in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and his upcoming turn in Kingsman: The Secret Service, it seems that Firth has quietly been adding a “wolf in sheep’s clothing” persona to his bag of tricks. Though I missed out on The Railway Man (coincidentally another film in which Firth was married to Kidman), I hear he did something similar in that film as well.
Unfortunately, the limited cast works very heavily against the film. After all, the cast is only comprised of three characters (depending on how you count) and at least one of them is a psychopath. When you get right down to it, there’s a very limited number of ways in which that scenario could possibly play out. This gives the movie a degree of predictability, which is something for any suspense thriller to desperately avoid. What makes it even worse is that the filmmakers went with the easiest, laziest, most predictable route they possibly could have chosen. It’s not a complete waste, since the big plot twist is positioned for maximum impact and of course the incredible cast plays it superbly, but the point stands.
It’s a disappointment that the filmmakers didn’t apply more creativity and effort into finding a more left-field resolution, but everything else is strong enough that I might have forgiven the movie for being a touch predictable. But then the ending happened, and it stood in preposterous contrast with everything that had come before. The movie is all about uncertainty at its heart and core, which leads me to wonder why the filmmakers would wrap everything up in such a pat and saccharine way that it verges on a deus ex machina.
Speaking of contrivances, there’s another problem with the plot. Because the protagonist’s development resets itself every day, the movie has to use very elaborate and far-fetched means of advancing the plot. It’s not just enough for Christine to have a visual diary, oh no. She also needs dream sequences and memories that spontaneously come back to her at plot-convenient moments. We’re told that these flashbacks aren’t necessarily reliable, but of course we all know that’s bullshit.
To address the elephant in the room, this is why the movie fails so hard in comparison to that other thriller about short-term memory loss, Memento. That film also had a protagonist whose development was constantly reset, but it managed to be at least a million times more clever about how to keep the audience engaged and curious while also accelerating the plot at a good clip. Memento had more innovations and creative twists in one scene than this one did in the whole movie.
In spite of all its myriad flaws, I can’t bring myself to completely hate Before I Go to Sleep. The banal plot and the ridiculous ending keep it from being a good movie, but the sterling performances and creative thematic material keep it from being a bad one. I’ve heard critics say that it’s unmemorable, but I don’t agree with that. The central moral of taking the good with the bad in life is presented in a way that’s very compelling and very memorable. It’s just deserving of a better film is all.
Between this and The American, my assessment is that Rowan Joffe is a very poor storyteller. I’d be perfectly happy to see him direct something else, given his talent for luring top-notch actors (his debut film, Brighton Rock, featured Helen Mirren, John Hurt, and Andy Serkis, among others). Just please, for the love of God, let someone else write the screenplay.